Thursday, December 29, 2005

Whose Big Chance?

Austin Bay writes that the Iraqis know that democracy is their best chance to escape the past of oppression and join the modern world:

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said that the constitution is "a sign of civilization. ... This constitution has come after heavy sacrifices. It is a new birth."

Jaafari echoed a sentiment I heard last year while serving on active duty in Iraq. Several Iraqis told me they knew democracy was "our big chance." One man said it was Iraq's chance to "escape bad history." To paraphrase a couple of other Iraqis, toppling Saddam and building a more open society was a chance "to enter the modern world."

The great democratic revolts are profoundly promising history. They are the big story of 2005 -- and, for that matter, the next three or four decades.

I certainly support this chance to introduce real (if different from ours) democracy (fully aware that some who deny Iraq can be democratic don't think America is either ...) to the Middle East's Moslem states, starting with Iraq. But does this apply to all Iraqis?

Certainly, the Shias of Iraq may see it this way. They experienced the death, poverty, terror, and despair of life under Saddam. The new democracy imposed by American-led arms and defended with our blood and treasure has clearly given them a chance to escape their horrible history. That they fight at our side is a sign of their commitment. The fact that they represent 60% of the population and so will naturally benefit from real democracy is another factor bolstering the chance that democracy can succeed in Iraq.

Even the Sunnis who benefitted from Baathist rule can learn to embrace democracy as a shield against being treated as losers in the Middle East are usually treated by the victors--harshly and with no recourse but to fight or flee. As they realize they can not bomb their way back to power and that they really are a minority within Iraq, rule of law becomes their best defense against traditional methods of dealing with the losers.

So two of the big factions representing close to 80% of the population have good reason to embrace democracy. But what about the Kurds?

The Kurdish north is jointly run by two factions that are not exactly democratic in outlook:

Kurds in Iraq are divided between the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) factions in northern Iraq. These entities are political-military-tribal organizations. The KDP and PUK are currently cooperating with each other, although they fought a civil war in 1996. ...

Tribal ties are a source of support in times of hardship and can still be use to mobilize communities against outside interference.

The two parties run Kurdistan under a nominal Iraqi flag under Chicago rules. Democracy did not save Kurds from Saddam's terrible rule. The autocratic parties did so with American support. So the Kurds have no particular reason to see democracy as their salvation. What is keeping the Kurds within Iraq is probably fear of what the Turks, Arabs, and Persians would do to them and fear that America--which wants a unified Iraq--would withdraw support for the Kurds if the Kurds deny us our goal of a unified Iraq.

Democracy isn't just about elections, it is really about rule of law and the ability to accept defeat and prepare to fight again within the system and at the ballot box the next round. The Kurds haven't yet had to face up to what they would do if they lose within a democracy. Will the Kurds accept that they will lose a lot since they have but 20% of the population? Or will the Kurds revert to relying on the tribally based autocracy that preserved them from Saddam's clutches when democracy fails to deliver narrow objectives for them or is perceived as "interfering" in their affairs?

Surely, we shall pressure the Kurds and try to bribe them into staying in a unified Iraq playing by the rules. Hopefully, if the contradictions aren't too bad, the Kurds will learn to love democracy as a minority in a federal entity with substantial autonomy.

But what will we do if the Kurds won't play by democracy's rules? What if the Kurds protect their ethnic interests by ignoring the will of the majority and therefore making democracy a mockery and encouraging others to undermine rule of law to defend their narrow sectarian interests?

Will we value the pursuit of a democratic Iraq and pay the price of Kurdish withdrawal into an autocratic independent entity to make sure the rest of Iraq is democratic?

Or will we value a single Iraq as is, but with democracy compromised to force the Kurds to remain in Iraq? Indeed, could we even force the Kurds to stay in without an ugly war by Iraq's central government that we'd need to support if Baghdad is to control all of Iraq?

As with everything, Iraq is a balancing act among competing interests and forces that sometimes go in the same direction that we want. Getting a unified (though federal) and democratic Iraq will still take a lot of work and a lot of patience as we try to hold the center and allow all Iraqis to escape their separate histories with the same method of democracy and rule of law.